'White Hollywood hands' on Indigenous stories: Is The Rock the right choice to play a Hawaiian King?

 abc.net.au  9/15/2018 7:11:50 PM  2  Pacific Beat By Eugene Yang

Posted September 16, 2018 05:11:50

From the wrestling ring to Hollywood, he's been known by many names, but the casting of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Hawaiian King Kamehameha is igniting a new debate about cultural appropriation.

Key points:

  • Critics of The Rock as the lead say Hawaiians should be allowed to tell their own story
  • Johnson has Samoan heritage and lived in Hawaii during part of his high school education
  • The film, called The King, is set to start filming in 2020

King Kamehameha is a central figure in Hawaiian history and hailed as the leader who first unified the Hawaiian islands under one kingdom.

But as a non-Hawaiian Hollywood team now plans to produce a movie about his life, locals are speaking out against its choice for the lead role.

Indigenous Hawaiian activist and educator Kealani Sonoda-Pale is among those critical of The Rock playing King Kamehameha, who she describes as "one of the greatest kings we ever had".

"From him we get laws and codes in our culture and in our people that protect the commoners … he made laws that protect the fish. He actually worked alongside the people," she said.

The case against The Rock

Ms Sonoda-Pale is opposed to the film — to be called The King — because Hawaiian acting talent is not being properly represented in a Hawaiian story.

"I'm opposed to The Rock being King Kamehameha in a film about my ancestors because he's Samoan and not Hawaiian," she told the ABC's Pacific Beat program.

"That's been a problem in Hollywood for a century, where Hawaiians are not allowed to play themselves in Hollywood films, or if they are, they're very marginalised."

Even if Hawaiian actors were picked over Johnson, Ms Sonoda-Pale said this would only change the face of the film, with non-Hawaiian creators still holding creative control and the potential to mishandle what she said is a nuanced piece of Hawaiian culture.

Braveheart writer Randall Wallace will pen the script, which is to be directed by Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis.

"The hands that it's going to go through are going to be white Hollywood movie hands … how can they adequately and with respect and dignity tell this story?" Ms Sonoda-Pale said.

"They can't. So it doesn't matter whose face is going to be out there, it's still going to be a white story."

Announcing the film through Instagram, Johnson stated: "In Polynesian culture, we have a belief that something isn't done when it's ready … it's done when it's right. The time is right."

Johnson has Samoan heritage on his mother's side, and spent part of his later high school years in Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

But Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, an Indigenous Hawaiian advocate and leader, told the ABC she did not believe his background or his experiences had necessarily prepared him for the role of King Kamehameha.

"Having lived in Hawaii for a brief period of time does not make him an expert," she said.

"It may hold a special place in his heart, but as to what place that holds in correlation to how well he can tell the story … that is what I'm really focusing on here," she said.

'Whose intellectual property is this?'

Such criticisms may prompt more questions about cultural identity, and at what point a person may be considered adequately a part of a culture to tell its stories.

"It's an issue of who should be telling these stories and who owns these stories," Ms Sonoda-Pale said.

Johnson was involved in similar controversy in 2016 when he voiced the demi-god Maui in Disney's animated film "Moana".

Those criticisms were initially directed at the film's egotistical and overweight portrayal of Maui, and later focused on a Maui costume released by Disney.

The costume featured heavily tattooed and brown-skinned sleaves and leggings, which critics compared to "blackface" traditions, and was later pulled from the company's stores and website.

Despite these criticisms, Ms Wong-Kalu does believe Johnson deserves a chance to tell this story under certain conditions.

"I am not completely opposed to the idea of The Rock portraying Kamehameha in the film," she said.

"I can say that what I would like to see is for The Rock be able to directly and deliberately address our community.

"It's very easy to draw the spears and declare war and go to battle, but sometimes it's a little harder to sit down and listen for a while before we take decisive action."

'We are currently being occupied by US'

Ms Sonoda-Pale's opposition to Johnson's casting also stems from historical problems around the United States' influence over Hawaii, which she said almost erased King Kamehameha's legacy.

"For a while, we had lost stories … for many years we were not allowed to speak our language, told we were savages, had no history," she said.

"It wasn't until the 1970s that we started learning our language again. There was a great revitalisation of our culture, and a lot of our stories started coming out again."

"It's one of those things that we always knew growing up, even though we were told that we have no history, we always knew about King Kamehameha."

In light of this history, Ms Sonoda-Pale believes that Hawaiian ownership of this story, and intellectual property, is clear.

"We need to wait for a time and a place where Hawaiians are ready to tell our own story to our own mediums in a way that we need to tell them," Ms Sonoda-Pale said.

Until then, her opposition to the film will be bolstered by the belief that as Hollywood profits from Hawaiian culture, the people who kept it alive have been left behind.

"We own some of the worst social-economic health education statistics here in Hawaii … we're still at the bottom of everything."

The King is scheduled for shooting in 2020, leaving plenty of time for the conversation to continue.

Topics: film, popular-culture, history, colonialism, hawaii, pacific

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